Sarah Shadonix says she’s always been geeky about wine. As a law student, she sought out wines that tasted good, but which fit her student budget. After marriage, she and her husband explored wine regions. “I just love all parts of wine.”
In 2017, Shadonix parlayed this love into a business called Scout & Cellar. Based in Texas, it “sources wine from all over the world, creating and bottling wildly delicious wines with an authentic sense of place”. The selling point is that the wines are all “Clean-Crafted”, a term that resonates with her customers. In 2018, its first full year, Scout & Cellar had a turnover of $20m.
Shadonix doesn’t only know about wine – she understands wine consumers.
It’s what’s not in the wine
The quotes used in this article are taken from Shadonix’s interview on Rebecca Minkoff’s Superwomen podcast as she declined to speak to Meininger’s. Shadonix told Minkoff that after the birth of her second daughter she decided it was time to pursue her wine passion, so she spent a year “studying to become a sommelier”, including spending nights in steak houses, tasting with somms. Then came an unpleasant reversal. The more she pursued her passion, the more she would “wake up in the morning with a headache”.
At first she assumed she was suffering hangovers, so she reduced her intake. But the headaches persisted, making her regret her decision to quit law. “I began to resent wine,” she said, and went looking for answers. “I talked to grape growers and winemakers and read advisory opinions and regulations.” Then came the epiphany. “I learned that lurking in all our bottles, whether $5 or $500, are hundreds of synthetic pesticides, gobs of added sugar, sweetener, dozens of added chemicals. All that junk was making me feel like junk.”
So she set out to build a wine company that sold wines made from “beautiful healthy grapes” that turn into “wine without any synthetic chemicals”. The term she came up with was “Clean-Crafted”, and a promise that every batch of wine is lab tested for purity.
Shadonix raised money from friends and family, sourced 600 bottles each of seven different wines, built a website, and then spent the summer out on the road, telling her story and getting people on board. “We turned (the website) on about three o’clock on Tuesday,” she said. “We sold out of all those wines in, like, three weeks.”
According to her LinkedIn profile, before she started Scout & Cellar, Shadonix was Channel Manager for WineCountryConnect, a “leader in wine e-commerce” that sources wines from “wineries and private label accounts”. In other words, she understands wine sourcing, e-commerce and the size of the market.
The sales model she’s using is multi-level marketing: when customers land on the website, they are directed to order from a consultant – someone who has signed up to conduct tastings and take orders. Consultants also recruit other consultants.
Many consultants use Instagram to communicate. This is a demographic keenly interested in health and fitness, whose Instagram feeds are full of yoga, high quality food and fitness. Many posts emphasise how much they enjoy the social aspect of sharing their wines. But some of them attempt to sell their stock by denigrating conventional wines. Memes abound, like one saying, “What’s Really In Your Wine?” that goes on to list ingredients it says are in conventional wines: GMO yeasts, Mega Purple, synthetic pesticides, ferrocyanide. “Mass Produced Wines Can Contain up to 300 Chemical Additives” screams another.
As one consultant makes clear on her YouTube recruiting video – 68% of consumers will pay more for products if they’re free of ingredients perceived as bad. In other words, it’s more profitable to talk about what’s not in the wines, than to talk about what is.
And, indeed, while the web store emphasises the cleanness of Scout & Cellar’s “exclusive” wines, there are few details offered about the wineries or winemakers who produce them. Nor are there many details about the winemaking processes. But the wines are guaranteed to be free of “yucky stuff” and every batch of wine is double lab tested.
It’s exactly the message that a wine-loving audience, who are conscious of health and wellbeing, want to hear. And it’s extremely profitable.